train calves

Seven Ways to Train Stubborn Calves

Overcome Poor Genetics With Targeted Calf Training

There is no denying that some individuals can develop outstanding calves with minimal training effort. For the rest of us, getting those calves to turn into cows will take both hard AND smart training.

One famous example of a bodybuilder with great genetics for calf development is 1982 Mr. Olympia Chris Dickerson. Dickerson only trained his calves twice a week. He found that more frequent training would make them too large and thus out of proportion to the rest of his physique.

In contrast to the genetically blessed calves of Dickerson, in the early years of competitive bodybuilding Arnold Schwarzenegger’s upper body development overshadowed his calf development. This asymmetrical development was especially evident in the 1968 Mr. Universe when Arnold finished second to Chet Yorton, an American bodybuilder with exceptional calves. This loss encouraged Arnold to make training his calves a priority. This focus on training calves resulted in dramatic changes in his development.

Despite the inspiration that is Arnold, many serious bodybuilders decide to avoid the challenge of training calves altogether by undergoing calf implant surgery. An estimated 1,170 calf implants were performed in 2003. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons that number increased to 2,559 in 2009. Being an elective surgery it is likely the cost, which could be as much as $9,000, will not be covered by insurance.

With that background, here are seven training tips to help jump-start stubborn calves into new growth.

1. Start workouts with gastrocnemius exercises.

Because the upper calf is primarily composed of fast twitch fibers, they should be trained before exercises for the soleus so that you can produce the highest levels of muscle tension.

2. Train the gastrocnemius with lower reps.

The two major muscles of the calf are the gastrocnemius (upper calf) and the soleus (lower calf). Although the exact numbers vary, the gastrocnemius primarily contains fast-twitch fibers and the soleus slow twitch. Fast-twitch fibers respond better to low reps and heavy weight which produce the highest levels of muscle tension. Slow-twitch fibers respond better to higher reps and thus relatively lighter weights but longer exposure to muscle tension.

As a practical recommendation, start by training your calves with calf raises with your legs straight (to focus on the gastrocnemius) with sets of 8-12 reps. Then perform calf raises with your legs bent (to focus on the soleus) with 15-25 reps. Of course, the tempo of the exercise influences the repetition bracket, but because calf exercises are performed through a relatively short range of motion the time under tension prescription will be relatively short – for example, it would be extremely difficult to perform a standing calf raise with a 10-second eccentric contraction.

3. Train the soleus more frequently than the gastrocnemius.

The slow-twitch fiber composition of the soleus enables them to recover faster than the fast-twitch gastrocnemius. As such, the soleus can be trained more frequently than the gastrocnemius. In fact, many individuals find they achieve their best results by training the soleus daily and the gastrocnemius only twice a week.

4. Make the single-leg calf raise with a dumbbell a core exercise.

One of the most effective exercises to train the calves is the single-leg calf raise with a dumbbell. It develops both the gastrocnemius and the flexor hallucis longus muscle. The latter muscle is important for many athletes because it pulls up the big toe when you lift your foot, thus playing an important role in sprinting. A few tips: First, hold the dumbbell on the same side as the calf you are working. At the bottom position squeeze the glutes. Squeezing the glutes will promote even more growth by stretching the muscle fibers of the calves.

5. Train the tibialis anterior.

The tibialis anterior is the lower leg muscle that stretches across the outside of the shin and helps dorsiflex (pull up) the foot. Weakness in this muscle inhibits the strength and growth of the muscles in the calves. Train the tibialis anterior by using bands attached to the foot and performing dorsiflexion (pointing your toes and flexing your foot) for 15 to 25 reps.

6. Contract the tibialis anterior at the bottom of calf raises.

Increase the training effect on the calves by contracting the tibialis anterior muscle at the bottom position of a calf raise exercise.

7. Stretch the calves.

Tight calves will restrict the range of motion of your calf training and thus inhibit muscle growth. One of the best ways to stretch the calves is by performing a few sets in which you rest in the bottom position of calf raises – letting the resistance do the work. Hold this stretch for sets of 15 seconds.

Final Words

Although genetics play a key role in calf development, those with poor development should realize that the calves can grow significantly with hard work and sound training. Start with these seven tips and you’ll be surprised at just how well you can train your calves. Arnold did it – so can you!


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